I shivered my way to the mailbox one February morning. I had several bills, a J. Crew catalog, and an ornate envelope with my name engraved in black. When I got inside and sat at my kitchen table, I turned the envelope over to see that the return address was my mother’s. I tore the envelope open and shook two thick pieces of paper onto the table. The larger one read: “The Reich Family kindly requests your presence on April 21st at 3 o’clock at the Sheffler Brothers Funeral Home as we lay Susan Reich to rest. Casual dress.” The other piece of paper detailed directions to the funeral home and the cemetery.
I sped for most of the forty-five minute drive to Mom’s house. She answered the door wearing an apron and one oven mitt. I interrupted her greeting and tugged her into the kitchen. I sat her down at her table. The smell of noodle casserole flooded my nostrils.
“I got your invitation, Mom.”
“Oh, great! What a relief. I wasn’t sure they’d get out in time. I wanted people to be able to R.S.V.P. After all, I have a right to know who’s coming to my own funeral.”
“But, Mom, what is with this invitation? What are you doing? This is ridiculous.” I slammed the invitation onto the table.
“I just thought that people should be comfortable during the service. Do you think I should have had them dress formally?”
I squinted and pursed my lips. I chose each word carefully. “Mom, I’m worried about you. This obsession you have with your own death isn’t just worrying me. Peg is terrified, and I think it’s gone beyond what’s acceptable. Please, Mom. Stop it. Dad’s gone. You’re all we have left. Please.”
She stared for a moment before answering. “Okay, sweetie. If you want me to stop telling you about it, I will. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t be as prepared for April 17th as I possibly could be. It’s happening, and nothing you or I could say can stop it.”
Mom cut into the noodle casserole and we shared it in silence. In the kitchen where I had polished off countless bowls of cereal and pans of Betty Crocker brownies, I stared at my mother. The corners of her mouth stretched toward her eyes. Her smile was so serene and genuine that I knew I would have to take a page from Peg and compromise with my mother.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “If you go to talk to a psychiatrist — ”
“Sorry, sweetie. You know I don’t like those people.” She brought her plate to the sink. “You’re always thinking like such a lawyer.”
“Well, I am. A lawyer. Mom, you’re not even sick. Well, not unhealthy. I’m just worried that there might be something wrong with you, uh, in your head. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you started having this delusion or dream or whatever right after Dad died.”
“There are no coincidences. Just life.”
“Exactly.” I scratched the plastic plate with my fork and turned my eyes down at the table. “Please, Mom. Just go and talk to someone and if he says you’re okay, then I’ll respond yes to your invitation.”
“I don’t know, sweetie.”
“I’ll help you write your goddamn obituary, but for Christ’s sake, do this one thing for me. Please.” She stared at me, and nodded her head slowly. I don’t remember the last time my mother conceded even the smallest thing to me. I nodded back.
I arranged the meeting and waited outside Dr. Helmann’s office for an hour and a half. Finally, my mother stepped out of the room. She slung her purse over her shoulder and told me that the doctor wanted to speak with me.
Dr. Helmann talked about her psychological history for a few minutes and I wasn’t sure he was even going to address the issue. I shifted in my chair and glanced at my watch as he spoke.
“Is she crazy?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “She seems perfectly fine. She’s just convinced herself that she knows when she’s going to die. It’s actually fairly enlightened.”
“Enlightened! How can you say that? She’s driving my sister to hysterics. Make her stop!”
“I can’t,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with her. All I can do is let her be. If she wants to come talk to me more, then I would be happy to do so.”
Mom didn’t want to see Dr. Helmann again. She didn’t like his aura. From time to time for the next month, my mother would call me with updates on the R.S.V.P. lists and other things she would need me to do for the service. I didn’t make the arrangements she told me to. I did exactly as Dr. Helmann said; I let her be. But that didn’t mean that I would encourage her.
My mother had us all over for dinner on April 15th. She wore a black, sequined dress that I hadn’t seen her wear in years. I wore a t-shirt. We didn’t discuss what Mom claimed would be lurking two days away. She cooked for us and smiled as she spooned heaps of food on each of our plates. As she reached my plate, I could hear her slow, deliberate breaths.
After dinner, Mom walked us to our cars. First, she picked up little Elizabeth and kissed her on the forehead. She set her down in the back seat. She hugged Andrew and tossled his hair. He scratched his head. When she turned to Peg, the light above the garage illuminated my sister’s face just enough to show her tears. Mom caressed Peg’s face with a delicate hand. She kissed Peg on the cheek and ran her fingers through Peg’s hair. “You’re beautiful,” Mom said. “I love you.”
Peg’s car had turned the corner before Mom looked at me. Without making a sound, she wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close. Her hands clenched my back and tightened. She put her whole weight on my frame. Her breath halted, I heard a quiet gasp. She kissed my cheek. My cheek tingled in the night air where her wet, cold lips had touched me. When she pulled her head back, any trepidation I had thought I’d seen was gone from her face. Mom studied me and said, “I love you.”
“Okay, Mom.” Her deep brown eyes glinted in the dim light. “Okay.” I stepped away from her. “See you later. Call me.”
As I turned out of the driveway, I glanced over my shoulder. My gorgeous mother stood on the top step of her front porch. She clutched her right arm with her left hand. Her smile was unbroken.
I was distracted at work for most of the following day. My desk calendar haunted me with its mocking “April 16th” in bold letters. I fought the urge to call, to indulge her delusion. I remembered the words she’d used for my whole life: “There are no coincidences. Just life.” By six o’clock, I couldn’t resist. I dialed her number. The phone rang twice. She answered. “Hello?”
“Hi, Mom. I just wanted – I just wanted to say that I think you’ve been a wonderful mother and that you’re an incredible woman.”
“Oh, thank you, sweetie. That’s so nice to hear.”
“And that I love you.”
“You know I love you, too.”
“And that I miss you. Already.” My mother didn’t answer. In the silence, my whole body shook. My breath gave way. “I should go,” I said.